Friday, June 9, 2023

Sheila James Kuehl: More Than Zelda Gilroy

Chances are very good that Sheila James Kuehl will always be remembered as Zelda Gilroy, the exceptionally intelligent girl who was always pursuing Dobie on the classic sitcom Dobie Gillis. While that may be the case, she had a career before being cast on Dobie Gillis and she would eventually a Juris Doctor at Harvard Law School. She would eventually become the first openly gay person to serve in the California General Assembly and later the California State Senate. She would also serve on the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors.

Sheila Ann Kuehl was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma on February 9 1941. For her acting career she would take the stage name "Sheila James." Her acting career began when she was very young. She was only eight years old when she was cast on the radio show The Penny Singleton Show, starring Penny Singleton, Gale Gordon, and Jim Backus. It was her parents who encouraged Sheila James to audition for roles in television shows. She was eventually cast as Stu Erwin's tomboy daughter Jackie on The Stu Erwin Show. She appeared in 69 episodes of the show.

Sheila James also guest starred on the TV shows Four Star Playhouse, General Electric Theatre, My Little Margie, and Mayor of the Town. She had small roles in the movies After The Stu Erwin Show ended she guest starred on the shows The Loretta Young Show, Date with the Angels, The Betty White Show, The Bob Cummings Show, and How to Marry a Millionaire. Among these guest appearances her roles on The Bob Cummings Show are most significant. Future Dobie Gillis co-star (indeed, Dobie himself) Dwayne Hickman played Bob's nephew Chuck on the show. The director on the first episode on which Sheila James appeared was Rod Amateau, who served as producer on Dobie Gillis for its entire run and also directed the majority of the episodes. She was already appearing as Zelda on Dobie Gillis when she guest starred on the shows The Millionaire, National Velvet, and The New Loretta Young Show.

It was also after The Stu Erwin Show ended that Sheila James began attending the University of California, Los Angeles. During the summers she would serve as a counsellor at a children's camp. It was while working as a camp counsellor that she met a fellow counsellor named Kathy and fell in love with her. Because homosexuality was not accepted at the time, they chose to keep their relationship secret. The two would continue to exchange letters once Kathy went back to college in San Diego. Unfortunately, Sheila James's sorority would discover their letters and she was expelled from the sorority. The sorority assured her that nobody would be told why she was expelled, but rumours about her sexuality seemed to be spreading.

Dobie Gillis, under its original title The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, debuted on September 29 1959. The show was based on the "Dobie Gillis" short stories written by Max Shulman and first collected under the title The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis in 1959. Sheila James first appeared as Zelda Gilroy in what was only the third episode of the show, "Love is Science." Along with Dobie and his parents, Zelda was the only character on the TV show to have originated in Max Shulman's short stories. Originally, Zelda was only meant to appear in the one episode, but the character proved to be so popular that she was made a recurring character and then a semi-regular character.

The character of Zelda Gilroy proved popular enough that a pilot for her own show, Zelda, was produced. If it had been picked up it would have debuted during the 1962-1963 season. CBS was initially keen on the pilot and it did well with test audiences. Unfortunately, months passed without any word from the network. Finally, Sheila James asked producer and director Rod Amateau about the pilot and he told her that a network executive found her "too butch." The quote has often been attributed to James Aubrey himself, the president of CBS.

It is difficult to say if someone at CBS thinking Shelia James was "too butch" had an adverse effect on Sheila James's career. At the time she was still deep in the closet and it seems unlikely that anyone at the network would have discovered she was a lesbian. Regardless, in 1962 even rumours of homosexuality were enough to bring an actor's career to an end. And following the pilot for Zelda, Sheila James's career was never quite the same. After appearing throughout the third season of Dobie Gillis, she only appeared in four episodes of the show's fourth and final season. She guest starred on McHale's Navy, Bob Hope Presents the Chrysler Theatre, Petticoat Junction, The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, and The Donna Reed Show.

Sheila James would be a regular on the single-season spinoff of McHale's Navy, Broadside. Afterwards she never again had a regular role on a TV series. She would also makes three guest appearances in a story arc on The Beverly Hillbillies.  She also guest starred on the shows The Bold Ones: The New Doctors; Marcus Welby, M.D.; Love, American Style; and Emergency!. Her last two appearances were both in projects related to Dobie Gillis. Whatever Happened to Dobie Gillis? was a 1977 half-hour pilot for a sequel series to Dobie Gillis that reunited much of the cast. In 1988 she appeared in the television reunion movie Bring Me the Head of Dobie Gillis, which reunited many of the surviving cast members.

Sheila James Kuehl eventually came out while she was attending Harvard Law School and in her second relationship with a woman. She became an associate at Richards, Watson & Gershon in Los Angeles, where she focused on municipal law, and then an associate at Bersch & Kaplowitz in Beverly Hills, where she focused on civil rights law and family law. Still later she became an adjunct law professor at the University of Southern California, and then an associate professor at Loyola Law School. She was elected to the California General Assembly in 1994 and then the California State Senate in 2000. In 2014 she was elected to the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors.

Zelda Gilroy was a groundbreaking character when she appeared on Dobie Gillis. Intelligent girls were a rarity on television in the late Fifties and early Sixties. Intelligent girls who knew exactly what they wanted and went after what they wanted were practically unknown. Zelda then stood out from the many teenage girls on other shows. What is more, Sheila James played Zelda perfectly. It is impossible to think of anyone else ever playing the role. Of course, she played other roles beyond Zelda. She was memorable as UCLA sociology student Ginny Jennings on The Beverly Hillbillies. On Broadside she played a character very different from Zelda, the wisecracking, man-crazy WAVE  Selma Kowalski. It is sad that Sheila James's career slowed following Dobie Gillis, particularly given she seemed poised for stardom once cast on the show. Of course, following her acting career, Shelia James went into law and then politics, where she accomplished a good deal.

As mentioned above, it seems likely that Sheila James Kuehl will always be best remembered as Zelda Gilory. Even so, she played other roles and accomplished a good deal. Retired and living in Santa Monica, it seems likely she will accomplish yet more.

No comments: